Stitching with the Ladies of Gee’s Bend

Sep 29

Earlier this year, I got a hankering to sew a quilt top by hand. I’ve always pieced by machine and quilted by hand in the past, and I wanted to slow down the top-making process.

Quilt block

This urge coincided with special guest artists at  Fiber College : three of the Gee’s Bend Quilters.

I spent a relaxing Saturday afternoon at the world’s prettiest camp ground drawing out fabric from my stash, ripping off strips, stitching them together by hand as I listened to the murmur of sewing machines punctuated by laughter and conversation (Gale posted photos and a short video from the day). “Doing it your way” was the theme–pick the fabrics that speak to you, let them cozy up next to fabrics that you might not normally put together, but that tell you they want to be together.

Anyone expecting to be instructed exactly how to create a Gee’s Bend quilt was probably let down by the afternoon. But anyone who really listened, who bent her will to the fabric, realized she had, in fact, learned how to create a Gee’s Bend quilt: stitch what makes you happy.

Every now and again, I add another strip to the block. I’m not sure if I’m going to make one large lap-quilt-sized block or make several more about this size and stitch them together. I’m using stash fabric, old cotton shirts, sheets, and the cutest contribution from Amy Lou–the denim-patch fabric includes apples and the saying “I like you” on it.Sajou box


When I open my Sajou sewing box, a beautiful gift from Sara years ago, I see treasures like Cal’s business card, a reminder of watching her sew on a vintage Singer; a thimble from Clementine placed sweetly on my cottage cot pillow; the embroidery knife I purchased in Paris with Sara after we spent hours in the gorgeous Sajou shop pawing over all the pretty things. I love that hand stitching drenches me in sweet thoughts of friends, of places like Maine, Paris, my porch. I love that each fabric reminds me of someone or some moment in time. That’s how stitching this quilt makes me happy.

I’d love to read about a project that’s making you happy–what are you doing your way?

Read More

Sophie’s House of Cards: a Review and Contest

Sep 26

This summer Sharon Oard Warner emailed to see if I’d be interested in reading an advance copy of her new novel Sophie’s House of Cards. I’ve known Sharon since 2003 when I took a workshop with her at Iowa’s summer writing festival. She’s responsible for my decision to go to graduate school and for my eventual move to New Mexico. I’m fortunate to have studied with her, and I remain grateful for her guidance as my dissertation chair.

So, yeah, when Sharon, a wonderful teacher and even more terrific human, asks anything of me, I say “yes”!

It doesn’t hurt that I love her writing. She doesn’t shy away from hard ideas, and she is a writer to study if you’re interested in a model for crafting flawed characters that resonate with the reader.

I just posted my review on GoodReads, which I’ll add here in case you don’t feel like clicking:

In her second novel Sophie’s House of Cards, Sharon Oard Warner tackles tough questions, just as she has in her debut novel Deep in the Heart: How do we allow loved ones to live their lives as they feel is right, even when we disagree? How do we handle betrayal? What does it mean to be a family?

As in her first novel, the characters in Sophie’s House of Cards are individuals, depicted with authority, leaving the reader confident that they had rich, complex lives before the story opens, and will continue to do so long after the book ends. Even minor characters in the novel are three-dimensional and might warrant having their stories told, too.

The story follows three women as they grow to understand how their lives entwine through love and betrayal. Warner renders not only the women with care and precision, but also the men who complete and complicate ideas about love, betrayal, and family.

Set in New Mexico, the novel brims with details that let the reader almost smell pinon wood in the kiva and Hatch chile peppers being roasted. The narrative structure—a tarot card reading—adds layers of meaning to the story, reminding the reader that even if fortune and destiny are at play in our lives, we can’t help but to be flawed. Warner allows us to see the beauty in our flaws, which may be the greatest gift of the novel.

Want to read the novel? Of course you do! Lucky for you, there’s a give away contest going on right now. Hop on over for your chance to win a copy of Sophie’s House of Cards and a set of tarot cards! Don’t want to put yourself in the hands of Fortune? Order your copy here.

Read More

Ethical Elegance Icons

Sep 25

The comments on last week’s Ethical Elegance post were terrific and super helpful as I refine my definition. Mary, Kirsten, and Mary Lou reminded me that the definition should include clothes having an excellent fit. Mary Lou’s encouragement to find a superb tailor made me think about my boss Nancy, at my first job out of college. Nancy was everything I wanted to be: civilized, unflappable, confident in all matters related to writing, especially grammar and style, and elegant even when dressing casually.

She’d spent her early career in Manhattan, living there with her husband and two daughters, and the polish of city life stayed with her when I knew her in Westchester. She taught me to slow down, to be more precise, to prepare for events by learning a little bit about all the big players, which allowed me to make conversation with ease.

I was scruffy, growing out a bleached pixie, too broke to buy new clothes at first. But week by week, I saved up, observed her enough to figure out I should buy one decent sweater set, a pair of flattering slacks, black loafers.

I complimented her clothes often, and I think she took pity on my attempts to dress more elegantly. She told me how she bought dresses with long sleeves and had them cut above her elbow, a more flattering look for her, or had her tailor hem her skirts to land at the sweet spot that made her legs go on forever.

When I close my eyes, I can picture Nancy in a simple tan dress with black piping that fit her as though it had been made for her. It was one of my favorite of her outfits, one that she could wear today, over 15 years later.

Part of what makes an article of clothing a classic is endurance, timelessness. As I cull my wardrobe, frame it with the ideas behind Project Ethical Elegance, I’ll bear that in mind. Ellen’s urging to love a piece, for it to make the wearer happy will be a good test, as will a pause to wonder “What would Nancy do?” –hem it, cut it, make it flatter.

I’d love to hear about one of your IRL fashion icons!

Read More

Welcome, Autumn, You Bringer of Squash and Yarn!

Sep 22

garlic barn

Keats had it right. I’m like the bees, “…think[ing] warm days shall never cease…” and listening for Autumn’s music, though the music of summer and spring is so much more inspiring. Still. Let’s take a look at some of the loveliness as summer slips away.

My CSA share comes to an end in a few weeks. Saturday the old tobacco barn, now used as a farm stand, was filled with bunches of garlic drying. The tomatoes may lack the sweetness that burst out of them in late July, but Autumn’s bounty brings warmth and depth of flavor. I’m especially excited to cook squash again–here is my favorite butternut squash galette recipe, and my go-to butternut squash soup.

I did no canning this summer, but I’ve been freezing leeks, fresh sauce, and garlic scapes, which means there will be a little taste of sun and earth and rain in this winter’s meals. In another week or two, I’ll buy up all the butternut squash I can handle and spend an afternoon peeling and chopping and freezing it. I want late Autumn and Winter me to think fondly of Summer and early Autumn me!



Even better than the terrific foods that Autumn brings is the return of my knitting fun! I spent most of the summer crocheting motifs for a linen shawl. With Rhinebeck around the corner, it was time to pull out a languishing WIP and get the wool turned into sleeves! The first arm of the sweater is about elbow length as of this morning. I don’t like pushing sleeves up to keep them from getting in the way, so I will only knit to just above wrist length.

I started this in 2012. I know. I told you it was languishing. But this is the year I wear it to Rhinebeck. I just know it is.

What has Autumn got you excited about? Are you trying any new recipes? Starting any new projects?

Read More

Ethical Elegance: a Definition

Sep 18


This picture, a view from my cot in Maine, embodies my definition of ethical elegance, which I first wrote about here. A shawl I knit, my 12-year-old jean jacket, my Breton shirt made in Brittany. The definition may shift, develop, grow as I delve into my newest style project. I can’t wait to see what I learn in the next few months.

Ethical Elegance means maintaining a minimalist wardrobe, avoiding excess and unnecessary consumerism.

Ethical Elegance means making my own clothes using as many sustainable, organic, or up-cycled materials as I can.

Ethical Elegance means purchasing from indie makers who use as many sustainable, organic, or up-cycled materials as possible.

Ethical Elegance means purchasing from manufacturers that support workers’ rights and decent working conditions.

Ethical Elegance means mending and wearing clothing out.

Ethical Elegance means turning to vintage and used clothing before buying new.

Ethical Elegance means not settling for frumpy clothing just because it is made ethically.

I’m going to return to the definition, refine it as I understand this project more. I’d love to hear what you think defines ethical elegance–won’t you share your ideas in the comments?

Read More

Fiber College 2014

Sep 15

I had the pleasure of spending last weekend in Maine, where breezes blow in from the bay, wafting curtains, dappling the sunshine.

breezeThis was my second year teaching Savvy Storytelling with Gale Zucker at Fiber College. We worked hard. Our students worked hard. But I’d be hard put to imagine any of us felt like work was happening.

From left: Gale, Jani, me. Photo by Kirsten Kapur

From left: Gale, Jani, me. Photo by Kirsten Kapur

You can see what I mean. Gale’s a terrific photography teacher. Here she showed the class how props can transform an ugly corner into a story-telling background. Jani was a good sport, letting the students boss her around as she modeled Kirsten’s newly released Duane Park Triangle shawl.

I look forward to Fiber College, not just for the groovy vibe, the chance to learn and teach and fondle fiber, but for the excuse to live in my dream house for a weekend. The cottage is amazing, but what makes it a dream house is sharing it with smart, funny, caring, creative women. If I didn’t share the little ranch in the woods with Neal, sharing the cottage on the bay with Gale, Kirsten, Cal, Amy, Mary Lou, Jani, and Ellen would be my next-perfect arrangement.

Several of us, upon realizing that ’twas blogs what brought us together have decided to bring back the blog. Sure, we love our short forms of social media, but we want a return to long form conversation. So, I’ll take up the question Kirsten posed: what blogs should go on my feed?

Next time: sewing! More sewing!

Read More

Four Years of Dressing with Less

Aug 27

The Story

August 9, 2010, just after noon. I must have stumbled across Courtney’s Minimalist Fashion Project post while eating lunch. I read it several times, thought about how I’d been longing to simplify my closet. I wanted a wardrobe in which everything fit all of me–my body, my style, my values.

I left a waffling comment:

I think I’m in. My fall / winter clothes are packed away, so I’ll have to go to the basement and see what I would want to keep for the project! I love this idea!

Boy, did I ever love it. October 1 will mark four years during which I’ve kept a minimalist closet. I’ve written about it for the Project 333 site, as well as here. I’ve persuaded IRL friends, Twitter pals,clients, and blog readers to give it a try. The initial reactions to the project are often the same: fascination, trepidation, sometimes a defensive “I don’t even wear 33 different items” (often recanted when the speaker goes back to her closet and counts), and sometimes “I don’t like the way my clothes look. How could I find 33 items I’d wear for three months?”

My response to all reactions is the same: give it a try. Just one round of it. Box up what you’re not wearing that round, and see what happens. You don’t have to give it all away, but I’m betting once you get hooked, you’ll give away a lot of those boxed clothes. And I’ll bet you’ll get a better sense of what does flatter you, and as you build your small wardrobe, you’ll be happier and happier with how you look each day.

Project 333 morphed into Project 52/52–ending on Sunday–and that morphed into Project Ethical Elegance.

I asked on Twitter and Facebook what folks want to know about dressing with a minimalish (yes, -ish!) wardrobe. Here are my responses to questions–please feel free to share your own experiences and questions in the comments.


How do you incorporate “outsiders” in your wardrobe–the occasional colors to brighten up the uniform? Since the 90s when I realized New Yorkers (most city women) wear black to hide dirt just as much as for its chic factor, I’ve been a devotee of black. During my early Project 333, I shifted to gray–I’m no longer a city dweller, and I wanted something ever-so-slightly off of the expected. Last year when I gave up dye and grew out my silver hair, I felt a strong need for color, and I turned to accessories for that bit of bright. Over the past four years, I’ve invested in an orange handbag, a chic pink scarf, a red DKNY cozy. I think hard about each accessory, try to imagine using it with every option in my closet. This spring, I got a ton of compliments when I carried my orange bag and wore m hot pink rain coat. Underneath? Gray sheath dress, fishnets, and gray Malibrans. Accessories are like the party-in-the-back part of a mullet!

Do you feel like you have enough options? I do! After almost four years, I’ve filled wardrobe gaps, found pieces that offer flexibility (check out the DKNY cozy linked above). Accessories (do I sound like a broken record?) help. I may only have two belts, but I have scarves that I also wear as belts. I may have gotten bored a few months ago, but it wasn’t the lack of options!

How do you keep from being stinky? This question really cracked me up, but I was assured it was serious. I rarely wear perfume, and I avoid smokers like the plague, so I don’t get too much environmental stink on my clothes. The first “term” of Project 333, my dryer was broken, and it was a chilly fall (read, not much outdoor clothesline action). I was pretty stingy about how often I washed clothes. I have plenty of undergarments to see me through a week without laundry, and unless I spill, I can wear my black pants, jeans, and skirts several times without washing. If you don’t have a washer/dryer at home, it’s easy enough to do a quick hand wash of that day’s clothes in the sink. Very few of my items require dry cleaning.  Most of the time, if I’m in a sweaty situation, I’m wearing my work out or cleaning clothes. Finally, I wear an apron at home, in the kitchen, when I’m working in my sketchbook, sometimes if I’m out in the yard with the dogs. That’s more to prevent stains than stink, I guess.

How do I deal with relatively inexpensive jewelry I don’t wear but was gifted to me? This can be a pickle, but I’ve used a few different approaches. First, I’ve shared with the folks who tend to buy me costume jewelry that I don’t need or want about my project before a gift-giving occasion. Another option is to see if you can create something you would love to wear out of the pieces. My talented bff Sara of Et Voila Design, for example, will take your unworn bijoux to create a stunning OOAK piece that will preserve the sweet intention behind the gift and let you enjoy it.

How do you deal with those deep-season items that are essential at the weather extremes, but not really used at any other time? I like to layer, which makes many of my warm weather pieces adaptable to cold weather. For instance, my Karina dresses are short-sleeved or sleeveless, making them perfect for summer. With a light cardi, they work in early fall and late spring. Add a heavier sweater, and I’m set for winter. Add tights or no, pull on boots or sandals: endlessly flexible. As far as heavy winter coats and boots? I streamline what I have, purchase with flexibility in mind, and accept that living in New England means I can’t do without cold-weather gear.

I get bored easily with my clothes, even now that I buy fairly nice clothes. Not designer, but well made clothes for work. Do you get bored? In nearly four years of dressing minimalishly, I’ve only gotten bored once, about halfway through 52/52. I love the challenge of styling what I have in new ways (and since tights don’t count, I’ve amused myself by building a small, funky collection). Accessories, selected with care and an eye to edginess, help a lot. Project 333 is great because it only lasts three months, and I don’t know about you, but I can do almost anything for three months. At the end of each three month session, I refined my closet. I thought about what I’d been missing, what would have made me even happier when I got dressed. And then I made those very specific purchases (I’m looking at you, hot pink pleated rain coat!).

How do I get my husband to throw out stuff he hasn’t worn since college? Courtney wrote a terrific post on how to live with family who aren’t participating in your changes. When Neal saw how easy my refined wardrobe made my life, how having an emptier closet brought me more ease, he made some changes to his own closet. 

What do you do when you look into the closet and you hate every single thing in there? I suck it up. It’s only happened one or two times, and it’s usually just my bad attitude that I have to smack back to its cave. By considering what makes me feel good (for me, that means well put together, like if Cary Grant suddenly stepped out of a movie and asked me to go for a drink, I wouldn’t be ashamed of how I look), what flatters me, and what is aesthetically pleasing to me, and investing in those pieces over time, I’ve made it easier to love my closet every day.

I still struggle with balancing a work vs weekend wardrobe…suggestions? Working as a professor makes this a little easier for me than if I worked in a company requiring a more corporate dress code. I don’t dress much differently on the weekends than I do for work. During the summer, I wear dresses or skirts and a tank top or t-shirt. I have work out and cleaning clothes that don’t count towards my 33 or 52 items. I love wearing my black slacks, a tank, and cardi to work with Fluevog Malibrans, and with my Ugg sneakers on the weekend. I have a few dresses that I’d never wear on the weekend, but most of the items, by changing out accessories, are great for running errands, visiting, or even hanging on my porch, writing or drawing. Honestly, I like feeling well put together when I pick up my CSA share!


If you’d like to start Project 333 (you can start any time; there’s no reason to wait), but you’re feeling a little anxious about cutting down the wardrobe, I recommend you start with Courtney Carver’s excellent Micro-Course Dress with Less: Click here to view more details.* The course is a week-long, and it includes pdf worksheets, playlists to inspire you (Courtney’s a real Mix Master), and access to a private FaceBook group, where you’ll find lots of people ready to cheer for you and answer questions.

And if you have any questions about paring down your wardrobe, well, I’m here for you. I’d love to chat with you about your clothing list-sometimes it helps to hear that you really can get by with one pair of black pants!

Are you intrigued? What’s holding you back?

 *Please note: I am an affiliate for this program. I believe with all of my heart in Courtney’s work. Almost four years in, I know her advice works!

Read More